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Stop Jumping to Solutions!

Okay readers, it’s time to test your business IQ. Which word does not belong in this group?

  • Radar
  • Kayak
  • Raven
  • Repaper

If you answered “kayak,” you’re right! It’s the only word that doesn’t start with the letter R.

But wait. If you answered “raven,” you’re also correct because it’s the only word that isn’t a palindrome (reads the same forwards as backwards).

Hold on a second. If you answered “paper,” you’re also correct because it’s the only word with more than five letters.

What’s the point of this exercise?

To point out that in business, as in life, there are often many right answers. But we are trained to constantly look for the right answer. So when the first idea that comes up looks good, we tend to shut down our thinking processes and run with that idea instead of opening the door to other potentially better or different ideas.

This is especially true in meetings and group settings where people are often more concerned about avoiding conflict than they are about dealing with the issues that need to be addressed. In fact, one of the biggest problems with group decisions is the rush to consensus that typically occurs whenever the first good idea pops up or when the loudest person in the room feels strongly about something.

In our culture, reinforcement for having the right answer starts early in life. Remember how good it felt in elementary school to get called on by the teacher and give the right answer in front of the whole class? At the same time, it felt equally bad to give an answer that wasn’t correct. So from a very young age we learn that if we want to look good in front of our peers, as well as authority figures, we’d better have the right answer.

As we grow older and progress through school, it becomes even more important to get the right answers. Things like final exams, SATs, and grade point averages play critical roles in shaping our futures, and they all depend on getting the right answers. Students who get the most right answers are rewarded with the best schools, the best jobs, and often the best opportunities in life.

In the business world, this well-conditioned quest for the right answer translates into what I call “jumping to solutions.”

Business is all about solving problems for our customers and for our organizations. So whenever an idea pops up that seems to solve a problem, we automatically shut down our critical thinking processes and accept it as the solution. We might take the time to debate how the idea needs to be implemented. But once an idea gets accepted as the solution, we become blind to anything else that might solve the problem in a different, more effective or efficient way.

Unfortunately, good ideas are not necessarily the best ones. To do what’s best for our organizations, we need to open our minds and consider all possible options, not just the first one that looks good. We need to consider that there may be multiple solutions to the same problem and focus on advantages and disadvantages of each or even if more than one solution is called for to meet the needs of differing stakeholders.

How do we stop jumping to solutions?

Start by encouraging divergent points of view during discussion of the problem. If people aren’t offering them, make a point to ask for them. For example, “We all seem to be locked into this one track. Does anyone have a different point of view?” “What if we had to come up with three solutions, what would they be?”

Make it a policy not to automatically accept the first good idea that comes along. Write it down on a flip chart and say, “That sounds good. Before we get into that, let’s see what else we can come up with.”

Don’t let your positional authority get in the way. For example, “Look, just because I’m the boss doesn’t mean I know everything. I really want to hear your thoughts on this subject, especially if you see it differently than me.”

Finally, analyze your decision-making process. Ask questions like:

  • Did we thoroughly consider the issue or did we rush to consensus?
  • Did the CEO or team leader unduly influence the decision?
  • Were alternative points of view encouraged or shut down?
  • Do we have real data to support our decision or are we making stuff up?
  • Is there more than one “right” answer to this problem?
  • What have we overlooked in our discussion?

Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it’s the only one you have. What are you doing to make sure your team comes up with all the right answers?

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